Masque Ball: Chapter IX (3/3)

by Mallard

And slid smoothly beneath the surface, jarring but not crushing us as I had expected. But it was a short-lived relief that passed through me. The water that now surrounded us on all sides was far deeper and more menacing than any swimming pool, kept at bay only by the thin metal shell that had certainly fractured as we impacted. My eyes darted around the craft at the riveted seams, trying to spot leaks before they became too big, though there was nothing I could do. I breathed deep as the submersible sank, but the air refused to fill my lungs, and I drew harder, panting as my lungs fought to fill themselves with precious air that would bubble out and away from the craft any moment. My fingers clawed at the straps, so tight for security, but now a prison, and I could not undo the buckles with my trembling fingers–

I became aware of a gentle keening, like a street performer repeating a simple tune on a penny whistle, and my eyes slowly settled from their frantic search on the glowing orange spark that was my closest companion.

(If I am here, you are hardly in danger), Kristopher whistled gently, continuing to sing his calming tune, filling the small space. I felt a rush of relief from the men on either side of me, and realized I had not been the only one made fearful by the sudden plummet into the ocean. I ignored all else and focused on the salamander, a creature of pure fire, surrounded by cold, implacable water.

A tiny leak in the craft would be enough to take him out, end him as thoroughly as a bullet to my head would me. If he trusted this contraption, well, I could hardly do less.

At last, my mind settled, I made myself look away from Kristopher and examine the craft with a critical eye. It was designed for stealth, and had no noisy steam engine to send rumbles far out through the water, nor to spew clouds of escaped steam to bubble up to the surface. Instead, it worked on a tightly-wound clockwork system, which gave it limited range but produced next to no noise. Ballast pulled us down against the buoyancy of the air trapped inside, until the pilot of the craft released a set of levers and the craft slowed to a gentle halt. Another control, and and the strained springs began to release energy into the propeller behind the submersible, pushing us slowly toward the oil rig, dimly visible in the silt-clouded waters. It was about the size of a two-story building, most of its bulk under the surface, built awkwardly of poorly-welded I-beams, hollow sealed pipes for ballast, and a general lack of attention to reasonable principles of engineering. The lower half of the rig was all trusses and lattice work to support the drill, which was currently retracted and unmoving. Propellers spaced around the rig hooked up to inefficient engines, which rumbled and poured steam into the water, so that parts of the rig seemed to be leaking air at an alarming rate.

Of course, parts of it were leaking air, as I remembered all too well, but numerous bilge pumps kept that from becoming too much of a problem.

Above the drill sat four bulbous fuel tanks to store the oil, and the way the rig listed toward one corner told that one was more full than the others. Above the tanks sat a narrow and cramped living quarters for those who lived and worked on the rig back when it was the height of technological advancement and not a sad relic of a bygone era. Modern rigs could store this entire machine in a single tank and have ample room to spare. This was a rig designed to service a small town or naval base, and never meant to withstand the stresses that had been inflicted on it, its tired engines forced to drag it hundreds of miles up the coast where it currently sat, motoring still north at a snail’s pace.

Amos and Hattie were peering at the rig intently, and I realized they knew nothing about it. While they were trying to fathom the intent of the oddly-shaped pipes and broken latticework around the drill, I already had a good idea of where the prisoners might be. Unless the pirates had sacrificed some of the their very limited living quarters–and I had knew firsthand just how cramped they were–the prisoners would have been shuffled off to the only other open space on the rig: an empty fuel tank. Drained of oil, as they all surely were, it was waterproof and would provide ample, if not comfortable, lodging for the prisoners while they decided what to do with them.

Even I couldn’t know what that would be. Hattie had suggested public executions, but I knew these men and women. Though all had killed in the line of duty, they were not heartless murderers. They had proven to have some small scruples at the ball, the leader preventing his man from raping that poor woman.

But they had also shot Hattie without hesitation.

“What do you think, Kristopher?” I muttered.

(I do not like this,) he said.

“Me, neither,” I replied. “What do you think their plans were?”

(…Did you forget again that I cannot know all your thoughts?) His song sounded somewhat amused.

I blinked, and snorted. Of course. Kristopher can read my moods very well, and usually knows when I’ve fallen into depression or pointless self-recrimination. But he can’t actually read my thoughts any more than the men I sat next to. He had been referring to the immediate situation, as usual, discussing his dislike of the submersible and the enormous amounts of water too close for comfort. Not seeing time the same way humans do, he was always less interested in the past and future, unless I specifically asked him.

Before I could rephrase my question, Sergeant Amos was speaking, having finished his assessment of the rig. “The prisoners must be kept up top, in the living areas,” he offered. I looked at him with some surprise. Unless he was familiar with its construction, he had parsed the rig awfully quickly, understanding intuitively how it was arranged. Never mind that he was incorrect.

Before I knew what I was doing, I spoke. “I think it’s actually more likely that they’ll be kept in that tank,” I said. “There’s not enough room in the living areas to house that many prisoners without stacking them on top of each other.”

Sergeant and Sergeant Major turned to look at me, and I realized I had made a mistake. Though, my mistake had been in keeping quiet in the first place, not speaking up as soon as my information would have been useful.

“Er, can we understand that I am an idiot, and skip the recriminations for now, please? I know this rig. I…I know these people.” That hurt more than I had expected. Everyone was now looking at me, ignoring the approaching rig. I took a deep breath. “I lived on this rig, or one very like it, for over three weeks. It is small and cramped, and most of the living quarters is open common space. The bunk rooms are separated by doors that do not lock, so there is no good place to stash the prisoners. But by the list of the rig, you can tell that one of the tanks is more full than the others. I suspect they are keeping the prisoners there.”

Hattie glared at me, but Sergeant Amos simply nodded, taking the new information in stride, leaving reprimands to my superior. “Is there a way into the tanks from outside?”

I closed my eyes, trying to remember the layout of the rig. There were service hatches that led from the living areas to the tanks, but that wouldn’t be helpful. There were the pipes from the drill to the tanks, but those were sealed and at any rate, too narrow for a person to travel along. I started to shake my head, then stopped as a dim memory surfaced. “There is a port beneath the water for a ship to come alongside and transfer the oil from the rig to the tanker. It’s not airlocked, but it’s wide enough for a person to squeeze through, and is designed to be opened from the outside.”

Sergeant Amos raised his eyebrows in surprise, clearly not having expected this bit of good news. “Can you direct us?” I nodded and squeezed forward past a glowering Hattie to point the pilot to the underside of the tank where the hatch, currently invisible, would await us.

Getting inside would likely prove difficult, but the army had not come unprepared. The pilot brought the submersible skillfully up beneath the tank, maneuvering between the latticework around the drill, coming to a rest several feet below the port. From there, things moved very quickly. A hatch in the floor of the submersible was opened, and Kristopher darted to the ceiling in fear, but the air pressure in the sub kept the water at bay so long as the sub remained level. From there, one of the army personnel went outside–just dropped in as if going for a quick swim, and reappeared overhead to work the mechanism around the hatch in the tank. It was on the bottom of the tank so that the oil would, by dint of gravity, pool in one place for the tanker to pump it from the tank. This had a double benefit of allowing us to leave the hatch open once we got inside, not having to worry about air escaping to be replaced with cold water.

The mechanism stuck and another man had to go relieve the first when he ran out of air, but slowly it began to move, and then Amos and Hattie were ushering us quietly out and up, never mind that none of us were wearing proper underwater clothing. The men carried rifles in oiled waterproof bags, and someone handed me one, not knowing that I had never been a good shot with a rifle. I pulled the rifle out and dropped my pistol in, and followed them out before Hattie could glare at me. I wasn’t sure if she was glaring because I had taken a weapon despite her fears of how I might react to the pirates; or simply because, with her injured arm, she would be more of a liability than a help in this next part of the operation, and had no choice but to remain in the sub to help the prisoners out of the cold water.

I focused on this thought, on the memory of her anger as I swam the few strokes to the tank, looking only ahead at the man in front of me and firmly disallowing my mind to note that I was dozens of feet below the water, wearing clothes that hindered my movements, and relying for survival solely on the air burning to escape my lungs. My eyes burned from the salt, my clothes and the icy water made my limbs clumsy and leaden, and if I so much as hiccuped, I would be lost.

It was not a moment too soon that my head broke the surface inside the tank and found myself surrounded by people.

Due to the tank’s curvature, the prisoners could only put so much distance between themselves and the portal, but the half a dozen or so haggard individuals within had positioned themselves as far from the hatch as they could, unsure who or what was coming up. Too late, I counted us fortunate that not a one of them had tried to play hero and given the whole thing away by beating on a member of the army trying to rescue them from this improvised prison.

I shivered as I pulled myself up, the water around the tank leeching any warmth from the air. I looked around at the seven faces around us, some with the blank looks of the defeated, others perking up at the spark of hope our appearance had engendered.

Sergeant Amos, who had been first in the room, was quick to silence the prisoners, speaking in hushed whispers and replacing speech with gestures as much as possible. I expected some resistance to the notion that we wanted them to descend into the dark water, without knowing what awaited them. But perhaps they were of the mindset that anything was better than this slow, cold death, and there was little hesitation as, one by one, the government officials held their noses and jumped or crawled out to where the sub waited.

I recognized Chorice and Downing, of course, still dressed in their finery, though stripped of jewels and gold, their clothing as rumpled as my own. They looked relatively fresh, having spent only an evening in the chamber, but others had fared less well. There was Theobald Jacks, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Commander in Chief of the Royal Army; a man whom I had never met but whose face I had much opportunity to learn while in prison, awaiting the final decision on the amnesty. I could not imagine how they could have captured him, but then, I would have thought the same of Martha Chorice. Normally, the ministers in the Council of Governors were under heavy guard, but it seemed such guard could lapse or be rotted from within, less robust than had been believed for so long.

Of the remaining four, I could place only Shorea Quill, who held no government position, but owned a number of news agencies, and whose artwork and pamphlets had formed much of the propaganda that saturated the north during the war, poisoning their minds against the Republic and its magic. Never mind that mages in the north had levied devastating attacks against us as well, raining fire from the skies, turning our weapons to rust, leeching the oxygen out of the air around an army, confusing their minds to cause them to turn against one another. This last utilized the most insidious magic of all, that of mentalism. Little good comes from studying mentalism, and I have never met a practitioner I did not disdain.

The theme of the prisoners was obvious enough: all those who had had significant effects on the soldiers of the Republic, either during or after the war. The propaganda that had turned the north against us; the man who had argued for the death of all rebels; the commander who had led the northern armies against us; and the woman who had made a mockery of everything the Republic stood for.

Distracted as I was, only three remained before I realized that none among them was Serah. A coldness gripped my gut. There could be only one explanation for why she would not be among the prisoners. Having no political influence, no importance, she would have been deemed useless, and been cast aside.

I found I was breathing heavily, panting, and Kristopher was not around to snap me out of it. There had to be another explanation. They couldn’t have killed her. Right? I had been so sure only minutes before that they were not murderers. But where, then, was she?

Scarlet colored my vision as my breathing doubled. She had to be here. If they had killed her, I would tear the rig down around them, rip the thing to pieces and destroy anyone who got in my way. Before I knew what I was doing, I had taken a step toward the ladder that led up to the maintenance hatch.

A hand on my shoulder stopped me, and I whirled to find Amos behind me, his face a curious mix of furious and confused.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he hissed at me.

“Serah,” I panted, not caring that he didn’t know who she was. “She’s not here. She should be here.”

He blinked, but he is a smart man, and though he may not have known exactly what I meant, he understood. “Calm down,” he said. “She could be anywhere. Maybe in a different room, or maybe–”

“What if they killed her?” I hissed back, still mindful of the need to keep quiet. “What then?”

Amos’s eyes narrowed, his grip on my shoulder painful. “Then she’s dead,” he said flatly. “And you’ll do none of these living people any good if you storm up there alone and get yourself shot. I sympathize, but now is not the time to lose your head.”

“But–”

“While Sergeant Major Morrison is aboard the sub, you are under my command,” he said. “Either follow my orders, or get the hell out of this rig.”

My fist clenched. “I–” I took a deep breath. My vision wasn’t clear, my mind not thinking straight. I tasted bile. I swallowed. “Yes, sir.”

“She wasn’t brought in with us,” a voice whispered, and I turned to see Martha Chorice standing beside me. I blinked, and a weight lifted just a tiny bit. I stared at her imploringly, and she nodded. “I never saw Serah, during the flight or after.”

It didn’t mean anything, of course, but…

Joel Downing was next in line, but he hesitated, then waved Chorice ahead. A gentleman to the last. Martha’s eyes stayed on mine as she lifted her dress and slid into the water, and I let out a breath when she had gone. Joel Downing was the last in line, and I gestured him to move, my thoughts elsewhere, my motions listless. Where could she be, then?

Downing jerked back as a shot rang out, the sound deafening in the enclosed space, and suddenly water was welling into the prison through a tiny hole halfway up the side of the tank.

* * * * * * * *

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